Our Voices / Our Lives: Stories of Women from Central America and the Caribbean Common Courage Press, 1995

, by Margaret Randall

Invasion and Resistance: Guatemalan Women Speak (fragment)

Our arrival in Guatemala City brings us up hard against a state of colloquial violence that pervades earth, air, people’s eyes. A tourist may come and go and never see it. This is clear to me much later when, meeting a friend for tea at one of the elegant hotels in Zone Ten, I watch families with matched luggage and surf boards in the lobby. But now we emerge from a couple of hours flying over land that holds the ruins of Tikal, the secrets of a civilization that resists centuries of rape — genocide in all its forms. Expectant, we make our way through immigration and customs and out into the light of early afternoon.

The taxis that take us towards our modest hotel stop and start up again in a tangle of busses, jeeps, private cars. This is no ordinary traffic jam. It’s a demonstration. Crowds of people on foot join those who are riding, in shouted campaign chants and raised V’s for victory. It is a mammoth show of support for the candidacy of Efrain Rios Montt, a general who was president during one of the country’s worst periods of violence. Elections are in five months. Guatemala’s constitution prohibits an ex president from running again, but these demonstrators don’t look like they’ll take no for an answer.

This show of support depresses me. Rios Montt is a hard core member of the Church of the Word, one of several fundamentalist sects that now claim some 30% of Guatemala’s population. This is a population that was once solidly Catholic; and earlier, solidly Mayan. Later, some will give us higher figures — 40 or 50%, they say. As is true elsewhere in the world, here religious fundamentalism spearheads the far right’s repressive thrust. The General puts forth a rabid line of "law and order." And it seems that even many of the peasant and working poor who suffered most during his first regime have been won over by vague promises of an end to corruption, misery, fear.

Political violence and the violence of ordinary crime seem to mesh across the face of this exuberant landscape. Not unlike the pollution and grime superimposed upon what must once have been a beautiful colonial city. Guate, people call it for short. After settling briefly in our hotel, we decide to take a city bus to a street fair in one of the popular neighborhoods. It’s our first experience of life here: the smells of roast corn and herbs, children laughing and screaming as the ferris wheel goes round, families and couples —many of them in traditional dress— wandering among the attractions.

Returning to our lodging we talk about these first sights of indigenous culture, our expectations and feelings. Suddenly Beth realizes she is missing her money and a pair of prescription sun glasses, all that she had in a small pack clasped about her waist. In the crush of the bus, deft fingers unzipped the pack, removed its contents, even zipped it up again. We had been warned that the desperation of life here makes this common. But we hadn’t expected it on our first day.

Then Lisa notices that a cloth shoulder bag, worn inside her jeans jacket, has been slit its length. Some of what it held has also been taken. Within an hour, two thefts. One more clue to understanding what has been done to a nation of people who once lived in spiritual and communal splendor.

***

On tired wooden benches and folding chairs that could easily jackknife for the last time today beneath the weight of some of us, thirteen women sit in a loose circle within the space —dirt floor, three walls, a tin roof— that serves as a Presbyterian Church. "La invasion, The Invasion . . ." Margarita pauses and leans into the circle, repeating these words we hear no matter where we go.

By now we know that she is not talking about 1944 or ’54, when the C.I.A. backed invasions against the only democratically elected governments in this country’s modern history. Neither is she remembering the scorched earth and strategic hamlet invasions of the early Eighties, high point of terror in the contemporary repression that has claimed the existence of 442 rural villages and 38,000 disappeared (almost half of those in all of Latin America).

We have been in Guatemala nearly a week. We know, because we have heard it from the lips of women of several ethnicities and in as many differing situations, that La invasión —spoken like that, with the emphasis of capital letters— refers to 1492. Margarita knows we are on a mission of solidarity, and she hopes to bridge some part of the distance between us by telling this story about other women of similar intent: visitors from Spain who recently sat on these same benches, in this same electric space: "They were talking about returning," she says, "reenacting Columbus’ voyage after 500 years." She rocks on her spindly seat. Her voice grows hoarse with emotion. "A celebration, or maybe a commemoration of some kind . . . they even mentioned the sailing vessels: three ships modeled after the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. And this woman asked me what I thought about the anniversary of the Conquest. I was silent."

Margarita’s smile, like the reverse impression of a photographic negative, is dull where it should have been bright, curved down where it might have lifted. She looks from one to another of us and repeats: "I was silent. I didn’t speak and so she asked me again: what do you think. Finally I told her: I am not going to be able to be gracious about your commemoration, because for us it is not something we feel like celebrating. For us these five hundred years have brought us nothing but abuse,
rape, genocide. The death of our cultures. Please understand, I cannot become excited about your reenactment."

We too are silent, each immersed in our particular memories of what Columbus Day evokes. In our country, of course, the day is named for the man who led the expedition. The official quincentennial celebration, with all its lies and bombast, is already taking shape. Throughout Latin America, October 12 is El dia de la raza, Day of the Race. Which race is a question people are beginning to ask.

But Margarita’s story isn’t over. "The Spanish woman was quiet for a few moments," she continues, "and then she spoke: I want to ask you to forgive us, she implored. But I told her that one woman asking for forgiveness is not enough. Not enough for all we have suffered. Later we found out that one of the sailing ships had been burned," Margarita’s smile almost turns positive image, "I think that Spanish solidarity committee may have been responsible . . ."

***

Josefina’s small hands barely touch across her lap, her fingers occasionally smooth the complex weave that is her corte, three yards of dark fabric wound and wrapped about her lower body. Like so many Guatemalan Indian women we have met, she speaks of her traje with words that let us know it is essential to who she is. The corte and particularly the huipil, richly embroidered over-blouse, define region and village of origin as well as civil status and other identifying information. Two
hundred and fifty different trajes are worn throughout this country.
We are sitting around a table in the house that serves as headquarters to CONFREGUA, an ecumenical grouping of the church sector. With us are women who work through the Christian Base Communities and with Protestant organizations. Increasingly these women are involved in programs that address consciousness raising, popular mobilization, and the struggle for the fulfillment of basic social needs. The conversation moves to include the women’s richly embroidered dress.

"I was eight years old," Josefina says, "when my mother taught me how to weave the cloth. And then the embroidery," her syllables are soft and clipped into the even tones of the indigenous woman speaking her second language which is Spanish. "I was allowed to choose the colors that would give me joy. My traje is a part of who I am."

The back strap loom is the most common, although floor looms are used for larger lengths and widths of cloth. Everywhere we go women have come together in weaving collectives, sharing resources and skills to produce more and better fabric. But always the tradition is there, the art. It, too, is a part of the Guatemalan woman’s identity. Many of the women are widows whose husbands have been murdered or disappeared during the violence. Often young girls help with the embroidery.

***

In another part of the country, unnamed to protect the people with whom we spoke, we spend an afternoon with a woman I will call Sara. The room in which she receives us is clearly hers: in one corner a small altar upon which the blessed corn and Christian cross share equal space, books and paintings and the faint fragrance of copal incense. A lone rooster crowing in the swatch of garden framed by wooden shutters occasionally punctuates our conversation. The sound is a welcome counterpoint to the incessant noise of large trucks or low-flying planes that conspire against us almost everywhere we go.

Sara traveled a part of the road towards becoming a priestess of her Mayan tradition but opted instead to practice nursing, the profession for which she studied in her provincial city. Recalling her years of schooling she provides further insights into the meaning of traditional dress in the lives of Guatemalan Indian women: "At the college there were only four of us who insisted upon wearing our trajes," she tells us. "The administration continued to try to get us to westernize our dress the whole time we were there. But we resisted."

She speaks of the insidious racism still meted out to women who appear at government offices or other official institutions in the traditional dress that holds their memory of female identity. The scoffing, belittling attitudes that face a Quiche or Kekchi or Mam woman every time she comes in contact with the ongoing expression of invasion. And she speaks as well of her work in hospitals, of the valuable connection with indigenous patients her own traje has provided.

Sara works among her people, the Kekchi. She does community nursing, and has been interested in systematizing the herbs, roots, and other plants cultivated for medicinal use by the old people, the wise. "They use them because they cost less," she explains, "and also because they tend not to produce the negative side effects of western medicine." And she speaks of the rituals that accompany the gathering of plants: attention to the moon’s cycle, prayers to ask forgiveness of the earth for having to pluck her produce.

This leads to a discussion of specific ills as well as of issues like menstruation and menopause and the attitudes the Indian women have towards these important changes in their lives. It is here that we stop to contemplate the fact that menstruation is really a largely recent western phenomenon. In these highlands —as in many other parts of the misnamed third world— young women become pregnant with their first child coincident with or even before their first menses. Between successive pregnancies followed by long periods of nursing, they live their years of fertility without bleeding every month. Menopause, then, marks the end of childbearing rather than of menstruation.

Again I am struck by the marginality of my own experience when considering the lives of most of the world’s women. Class, race, gender, and sexuality must be factored into analyses of commonality and difference, but so must culture — so central to how we live.

***

The meaning of traditional dress is made clear to us nowhere more vividly than in the presence of a tattered corte used by our group of U.S. women as empowering ritual. This piece of poor cloth, a rude mass of patched patches —blue, brown, a striped swatch of dirty white dotting the more prevalent red— has been reduced to little more than a yard from its original three. The Maryknoll Sister among us received this cast off covering of a woman’s body from another in her congregation, and we carry it with us into the country and out. At different moments in our collective processing we spread it in our midst, taking strength from what we imagine to be the history of the woman to whom it belonged.

The story we learn is this. Sometime during the worst of the violence, 1982-’86, a woman, one of thousands, was forced to flee a resistance village with her two small children. Through the mountainous highlands they made their way, struggling over an eight year period, until they reached one of the teeming refugee camps in southern Mexico. By that time, her only cloth was reduced to the shambles we now use as amulet. A Maryknoll Sister at the camp provided her with a new corte, and so the old one passed from hand to hand until it came to rest among ten women from another world, who would lose (or find?) ourselves in contempla¬tion of its proud, tenacious life. It is a visual, tangible, expression of women’s courage.

Such frequent manifestations of the importance of traditional dress for the Indian women of Guatemala lead us to questions about these women’s feelings regarding those from outside appropriating their richly woven huipiles. Some of us buy the embroi dered tops at solidarity events or in the many U.S. outlets for indigenous apparel. I myself have worn the shifts from Mexico or Guatemala much of my life, drawn to their art of fabric, color, design. Now I am forced to question the legitimacy of my choice.

Gabina, one of the Presbyterian women in Chimaltenango, responds to our concern. "If she buys our clothing in order to help us live, if she wears it with respect for our way of life, then I feel good about seeing a woman from outside with one of my people’s huipiles." She falls silent. Perhaps she has said as much as she wishes on the subject. But we press her further. What about the corte, we want to know. The women exchange looks of incredulity among themselves. It is clear that they have seen outsiders wearing their huipiles, and have come to the conclusion just offered, either out of resigned expediency or from the heart. But another’s use of the wrapped skirt is beyond their ability to conceive so generously of encroachment upon tradition. "No," Gabina says finally, "the corte no."

***

Identity is also and profoundly language. This is particularly important to people in a country where 22 separate indigenous tongues have yet to be given the same legal and institutionalized recognition as the invader’s Spanish. The latter is official, although native only to that 40% of the population called Ladino.

Many of us have read I, Rigoberta Menchu, the extraordinary testimony of a Guatemalan Quiche Indian woman. Many in our own country have heard Rigoberta in person; since the political repression in hers forced her into exile, she works for the United Nations and tours frequently, speaking as eloquently as she writes of the torment of a people under constant threat of genocide. Language and the speaking of language are powerfully present in Rigoberta’s tale. She spoke only her native Quiche until her conscious decision, at the age of 21, to learn Spanish "so as to be able to tell the story of my people."